Flour recalls center of busy year for NAMA

by Josh Sosland
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James McCarthy, NAMA
James A. McCarthy, president of NAMA, discussed the new task forces and other major developments at group's annual meeting on Sept. 10.

MIDDLEBURG, VA. — Task forces focused on the issues of pathogens and allergens have been established by the North American Millers’ Association.

In a Sept. 10 interview with Milling & Baking News, James A. McCarthy, president of NAMA, discussed the new task forces and other major developments at NAMA. The discussion took place during the 2016 annual meeting Sept. 8-10 at the Silverado resort and spa in Middleburg.

Organizationally, the year hasn’t been a simple one for NAMA, but Mr. McCarthy said the group takes pride in its many activities, including a move to new offices in Arlington, Va.

“Things are good financially,” he said “We have moved our offices, which is saving us money, puts us in a great space and a great location. We are in the same building as the National Grain and Feed Association and the North American Export Grain Association.”

In part with an eye toward efficiency, NAMA embarked on a strategic planning process a year ago aimed at tightening the group’s focus. Adopting a new tagline — the link between grain and goodness — NAMA also identified three pillars of strategic focus — food safety, nutrition and supply chain.

“One and three were very relevant to the summer recalls,” Mr. McCarthy said.

In May, General Mills, Inc. announced a recall of Gold Medal and other family flour brands after a multi-state outbreak of illness from E.  coli was tied back to the flour milled at the company’s Kansas City mill. The recall expanded in the weeks that followed and by late July totaled 450,000 cwts of flour.

Around the same time, Grain Craft issued a recall when traces of peanuts were found in a wide range of consumer products baked from Grain Craft flour.

When the recalls occurred, NAMA was contacted and asked to address the industry-wide aspects of the events. In the weeks that followed the Technical Committee met by phone on multiple occasions and a meeting of the Executive Committee on the recalls was conducted as well. Recommendations from the Technical Committee went to the Executive Committee, which concluded the establishment of best practices should be the focus of NAMA work.

The peanut task force will have about 20 members with representation from the American Bakers Association, National Pasta Association and Grocery Manufacturers Association as well as N.G.F.A. About a dozen NAMA members will populate the E. coli task force. Mr. McCarthy said NAMA has received valuable cooperation from the Kansas State University Department of Grain Science and Industry and its head, Dr. Gordon Smith.

Since the first recall last spring, the objective has been to communicate effectively with members without being alarmist, Mr. McCarthy said.

“We are trying to identify steps to dramatically reduce or eliminate the problems,” he said. “It is our plan to present the proposed best practices to the F.D.A.”

With that in mind, he said the group has met with the F.D.A.’s Stephen Ostroff, deputy commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Ostroff participated in the NAMA program.

“We also are exploring ways to better communicate with consumers about the safe handling of flour,” Mr. McCarthy said. He said NAMA has reached out to the Home Baking Association and the Partnership for Food Safety Education to explore opportunities and similarly may see whether the government’s foodsafety.gov web site may be a vehicle for communication.

A completely different approach is being pursued in connection with the peanut recall, Mr. McCarthy said.

“It quickly became obvious that the peanut recall was a rail issue,” Mr. McCarthy said. “We worked cooperatively with the bakers, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the National Pasta Association and the National Grain and Feed Association.

“Randy (Gordon, president of the N.G.F.A.) and I met with the Food and Drug Administration on a sanitary transportation rule,” Mr. McCarthy said. “We have urged the F.D.A. to require railroads to require prior load information. Peanuts were not the only impetus for the request. Carriers have no obligation to share this kind of information.”

The railroads have been split in terms of their willingness to dedicate cars for hauling peanut meal, with certain carriers willing and others non-committal, Mr. McCarthy said.

“We are working to secure support from other stake holders,” Mr. McCarthy said.

Efforts to tune up NAMA activities in the aftermath of the strategic planning process are continuing, Mr. McCarthy said. A task force headed by Mark Kolkhorst, NAMA’s new chairman, will explore ways to revise the group’s committee structure.

“We have committees that are less relevant and active, while areas such as transportation and supply chain merit establishing a standing committee,” Mr. McCarthy said. “The Technical Committee is very active. It oversees wheat research. The recalls have been a primary focus of the committee, and FSMA (The Food Safety Modernization Act) has been another area of their work. We go to the committee a lot.”

In addition, the Corn Division of NAMA  is considering a corn research initiative and while the Oat Division is pursuing an oat research project around scab

FSMA was a principal topic of discussion on the program at the NAMA Division meeting in March, which Mr. McCarthy said helped prepare the industry for the recall.

“When I joined NAMA in 2013 I was worried the industry wasn’t prepared for FSMA,” he said. “The presentation was led by  Jesse Leal of AIB International and Ricardo Carvajal, NAMA’s Food and Drug Administration counsel.”

The Wheat Innovation Initiative, formerly referred to as the Wheat Summit, has been dissolved, Mr. McCarthy said. The group, organized originally by NAMA and the National Association of Wheat Growers, drew groups across the entire wheat foods chain committed to halting and reversing the long-term drop in U.S. wheat plantings. The group has been replaced by a Wheat Action Plan put together by NAWG.

The attention devoted to the recalls has not resulted in the neglect by NAMA of other issues of concern to the millers, including pending changes to the Nutrition Facts Panel and labeling of food containing bioengineered ingredients. Regarding nutrition labeling, Mr. McCarthy said the industry wants to be sure certain fiber sources, such as inulin, are not excluded from the fiber lines of the panel.

NAMA is participating with other groups lobbying for multiple pending labeling changes to take effect on a uniform date.

Studies of the shelf stability of vitamin D continue to move forward, and NAMA has been supportive of voluntary fortification of masa flour with folic acid.

“We think that will benefit the Hispanic population in terms of reducing neural tube birth defects,” Mr. McCarthy said.

NAMA also has taken steps in response to the discovery of bioengineered wheat in the Pacific Northwest, he said, crediting NAWG and U.S. Wheat Associates, who took the lead in interfacing with the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The nutrition pillar of the NAMA strategic plan has been addressed principally through the group’s work with the Grain Foods Foundation and the Wheat Foods Council. Mr. McCarthy cited the publication of research funded by the G.F.F. as a particularly positive development.

In coming weeks, NAMA will become more politically active, conducting a get-out-the-vote effort on behalf of pro-business candidates, Mr. McCarthy said.

Of concern following the upcoming election is the 2018-19 farm bill and NAMA’s agenda with regard to grain research funding (NAMA would like that to be sustained), the Conservation Reserve Program (NAMA would like the program reduced or at least not expanded) and U.S.D.A. export food assistance programs (including the Foreign Market Development Program).

For all the industry activity the recalls generated, Mr. McCarthy said the industry benefited from limited mainstream media coverage of the recall incidents.

“We take these issues very seriously,” he said. “I do personally. I am allergic to crustaceans. We understand the importance to our customers and to their customers, the consumers, that our product is safe.” 
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